Going greens: India's golf boom

NEW DELHI, India — Germany's Marcel Siem took advantage of a last-minute putting tutorial from India's top-ranked women's amateur to take the lead on opening day of the country's newest international golf tournament this week. Tipped to slow greens that foxed other European players, Siem notched an eagle and several birdies by stiffening his stroke to avoid leaving his putts short. But fans still hold out hope for local favorite Jeev Milkha Singh, ranked 59th in the world.

Underway this week at the Indian capital's new DLF Golf & Country Club — a plush course built by one of the country's largest real estate developers — the Avantha Masters is the highest paying professional tournament ever played in India, offering prize money of $2 million.

But that's just the tip of the iceberg.

Known internationally for its slums, India is going green. Putting green. Aided by corporate support and a rising middle class, golf is fast becoming big business in India. Over the past five years, new courses have mushroomed all over the country, and golf-related retailers and manufacturers are beginning to set up shop here to exploit a potentially vast future market.

Meanwhile, the number of amateur tournaments and the prize money for winning has increased manifold, while a number of professional events are also springing up — 24 pro tournaments alone in 2010. And golf tourism is emerging as a lucrative travel business, as players from Japan and Southeast Asia fly in on charter weekends to take advantage of India's bargain basement greens fees.

“We are just short of 200 courses, and we expect that we will put up in the next decade more than 100 courses,” said Ashit Luthra, chairman of the Indian Golf Union. “It is becoming a corporate sport.”

India's skyrocketing residential real estate market has played a big part in the boom. Designed by Arnold Palmer, whose name has become synonymous with beautiful courses, the DLF Golf & Country Club opened for play in 1999, at the beginning of a decade-long burst of activity in the Indian golf scene. Located in Gurgaon, Haryana, a satellite city close to New Delhi that plays host to a large number of multinationals, the golf club was built to attract wealthy Delhi residents to the city's hinterland.

Now virtually every major real estate developer in India is turning to golf as a way of marketing their properties to an elite that once valued an address in the urban center above all. Jaypee Greens, for instance, focused its recently completed 452-acre development in Greater Noida — the latest of Delhi's increasingly far-flung suburbs — on an 18-hole course designed by Canada's Graham Cooke. For an encore, the company is building a top-end residential project around a 2500-acre “sports city” that will feature golf courses as well as a motor-racing track and other facilities. According to the company, golf helps it attract elite customers and sell its properties for more than double the price of neighboring residential projects.

“Golf is actually a major driver for our business,” said Manu Goswami, head of business development at real estate developer Jaypee Greens. “It's pretty amazing the number of people who are getting into it.”

Retailers are also beginning to see India's potential. This January, Callaway Golf, the billion dollar company known for creating the “Big Bertha” driver, launched a wholly owned subsidiary to tap the local Indian market and penned a marketing deal with Jeev Mikkha Singh, the top-ranked Indian player in the world. The launch follows the entry of TaylorMade Golf, a division of adidas, in 2003.

"Callaway Golf's international business spans more than 110 countries and accounts for over half of the Company's annual revenue," George Fellows, Callaway's chief executive, was quoted as saying in a press release. "We see great potential in the Indian market and are looking forward to introducing our products.”

It's been a long road. India's Royal Calcutta Golf Club was the first such club outside Great Britain when it was built, in 1829, five years before the construction of Scotland's St. Andrews and 60 years before the game made its way to America. But even though the sport continued among India's elite throughout the 20th century, its strong associations with capitalism and colonialism prevented golf from breaking out of the competitive sports arena to become a top leisure activity. Until now.

“India is not active enough in the 30-plus age group to get into racket ball or tennis, so the 30-plus segment is looking for a softer game like golf,” said Jaypee Greens' Goswami.

Though the market is still tiny compared with the U.S., about half a million Indians play golf today, and Callaway forecasts that number will grow at an annual rate of 25 to 30 percent for the next few years, compared with 2 to 3 percent in America.

What's more, as an increasing number of Indian pros break into the big money and sports in general attain greater acceptance among the middle class with the success of athletes like tennis player Sania Mirza, the new players taking up golf are no longer limited to Indians who can trace their wealth to the days of the British Raj. Earlier this year, a former caddie whose father worked as a laborer took home $200,000 by winning the Indian Open. And in Kolkata, Indrajit Bhalotia's Protouch golf academy has teamed up with a school for slum children to teach some of the poorest kids in India the proverbial rich man's game.

One reason is that apart from the posh courses that real estate developers are hiring the world's best designers to build, India is also beginning to witness growth in the cheap, open-access public courses that can democratize the game. Greens fees at most courses run less than $11 and many courses charge as little as $1. But even at the top courses fees are a fraction of the rates charged elsewhere in Asia.

And that makes golf tourism a potentially lucrative proposition for India's travel sector. Thanks to colonial-era courses located in the Himalayan hills and tea estates, and others sprinkled with historical monuments, India boasts some unusual attractions for the golf tourist. The greens of the Agra Golf Club boast a stunning view of the Taj Mahal, the links of Delhi's Qutub Golf Course lie in the shadow of the 12th-century Qutub Minar, and courses across the country promise everything from stunning desert landscapes to lush coffee plantations. Several travel agents are already marketing Indian golf holidays to tourists from Japan and Southeast Asia — who have already made Malaysia and Thailand popular haunts.

“If we market it well, we can get a flood of tourists coming in,” said Luthra. “But for that, we need more and more courses.”